Afghanistan Votes

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Almost four years after the fall of the Taliban, Afghanistan is holding its first national legislative election. What has been achieved in pursuit of democracy in that time, and how stable is the transition?

After suffering through coups, foreign invasions and civil war and the rise and fall of the Taliban, Afghan men and women at last are able to choose their own leaders. The transition will be choppy; no Afghan wants to readily share power with another, and many of the candidates are tied to warlords or powerful clans and tribes with narrow rather than national interests. Parliament could well resemble the national game of Buzkashi, in which it's every rider for himself, fighting over a dead goat.

President Karzai has stayed in power with the backing of the U.S. and by making agreements with various local warlords. Will the election transform Afghanistan's government, or will it simply return many of these same warlords to Kabul as legislators?

Karzai says that Afghans are canny enough not to vote for warlords who will enslave them. But the warlords and their proxies are, after all, the men with guns and money, much of it scooped up through drug trafficking, and many are expected to buy or bully their way into 249-seat lower house of parliament and the 34 provincial assemblies.

Despite the almost four-year presence of a U.S. counterinsurgency force and NATO peacekeepers, the Taliban appears to be regaining strength, and violence has actually increased over those four years. Why hasn't their threat been eliminated?

The U.S. military in Kabul say there's more fighting now because U.S. troops are going into the Taliban strongholds and rooting them out. But in recent months, the Taliban have received a huge influx of cash and weapons, and funding for this is coming in part from al-Qaeda and its rich backers in the Gulf who don't want to see the Taliban wither away. There are various sightings of Taliban leader Mullah Omar. Some even put him across the border in Pakistan, but none of these reports are reliable. It's been nearly a year since U.S. forces nearly caught him in the mountains of Oruzgan. Since then, Omar has vanished, just like his pal, Osama bin Laden.

The U.S. is talking about beginning a substantial troop withdrawal from Afghanistan next spring. How will this affect the situation there?

U.S. withdrawal hinges on two iffy things: first, that the Taliban will have been sufficiently beaten into the ground so that non-U.S. coalition forces along with the Afghan national army and police can handle the country's security. The other big question is whether the two big coalition partners, France and Germany, would be willing to take over some of the U.S.'s burden of combat operations, and unless there's some serious haggling done in NATO, that won't happen.